Cole Lotta Love
Gregory Porter on paying tribute to Nat King Cole on his new LP, how it relates to the US' current political situation, and working with Van Morrison. Interview: Peter McGoran
"My biggest influences in life were my mother, gospel music, and Nat King Cole. It’s
in my DNA.”
“It’s just that raw, beautiful authenticity – unaltered by technology. That’s what it is right there.”
Having just finished dinner at the Westbury Hotel, and with all of his 6 foot 3 inches looming over your Hot Press correspondent, Gregory Porter is trying to find the best way to answer the question of how Nat King Cole, and other artists from his era, became innovators in modern music.
Fresh from recording Graham Norton the night before (where he stole the show by performing ‘Mona Lisa’ with none other than Jeff Goldblum on piano), Porter’s decision to spread the Gospel According to Nat came about for both personal and political reasons.
“People had been asking me for years, ‘When is this album coming?’” laughs Gregory. “Because everyone knew that this was inevitable. Nat King Cole is part of my understanding of music. My biggest influences in life were my mother, gospel music, and Nat King Cole. It’s in my DNA.”
So the choice to do a covers album didn’t set off alarm bells for the record company?
“No, nothing like that! I mean, will this album claim all of the fans that I gained doing a song like ‘Holdin On’ with Disclosure? Or an album like Liquid
Spirit? Probably not! But you’re gonna get a few fans discovering something new. People who might not have thought about Nat King Cole saying to themselves, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful music.’ That’s the thing I’m hoping for.”
All of the 14 songs on the album left an impression on Gregory from a young age.
“My family’s there when I sing these songs,” he says. “And I’m there as well, you know? For example, ‘I Wonder Where My Daddy Is’ – that’s me, talking to my own father. ‘When Love Was King’ – that’s my politics. ‘Nature Boy’ – that message of ‘the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return’, that’s my message. See, what has always stuck with me is that Nat chose to write songs with a message. Without being preachy, he always just has a clever, simple message.”
I’m serenaded as Gregory sings a few lines of ‘Smile’ to me. “Smile though your heart is aching,” he croons.
“Smile though your heart is breaking. You hear that? That message is just timeless.”
Is there also a political message for modern America in these songs?
“It’s interesting, because I probably re-recorded ‘When Love Was King’ on this record to reiterate that energy of peace and equality and mutual respect for women. Stylistically, this is all about my tribute to Nat King Cole, but there was a dual reason for recording these songs too. So, yes, I found myself speaking about our current political situation as well.”
On the more personal aspects of the album, Gregory channelled his own experiences working with Nat’s daughter, the late Natalie Cole.
“Natalie and I did a show together at the Royal
Albert Hall before she passed,” he tells me. “I told her, very personally, that I wanted to do this record and she immediately gave me encouragement. She never stopped encouraging me right up to the end. But deep down, I felt like I should stay away from recording something like ‘Unforgettable’. It was just done so brilliantly by Natalie and her father together. I didn’t want to touch that. There’s a few songs on there that are clearly very personal songs for Nat, but they also mean a lot to me as well. That’s why I’ve kept them.”
At the same time as he was working with Natalie Cole, Gregory Porter also got words of wisdom from probably the most famous jazz and soul artist this side of the Atlantic.
“I’d heard a lot about Van Morrison before I started working with him,” chuckles Gregory. “‘He’s angry.
He’s a grump. He’s impossible to work with.’ Naw, I got none of that. He’s gentle, he’s funny, he’s shy. That was my experience. I had no idea that he’d been listening to my music, but he had. He actually cared about what I was doing. Van was breaking down my lyrics and my performances and talking to me very honestly about what he thought. That was dope.”
Van is another artist who constantly evokes the “raw, beautiful authenticity” of jazz and soul artists like Nat King Cole.
“It’s undeniable genius!” Gregory says excitedly. “That’s why people always go back to it. You know, at that time, being exceptional was the standard for musicians. Look at it this way – we don’t make architecture like we used to. We look at buildings from 100 years ago and say, ‘God, how did they make that?’
And it wasn’t that people from that time were so much better, they just held themselves to a higher standard. I think it’s a similar thing with music. So doing this album was about trying to channel that exceptionalism. Trying to roll back. But don’t be mistaken; try as I might, I wouldn’t put myself anywhere near Nat’s category.”
Nat King Cole And I is out now.